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Coming Together at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

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#8952
The attendees of the summit. Photo by Cristi Burgos

A summit at the Kirk Douglas Theatre brings together BIPOC artists and theatre makers from across Southern California to collaborate and create change.

Something remarkable took place on the stage of the Kirk Douglas Theatre on Friday, October 14th, 2022: a group of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) theatre makers and administrators from Center Theatre Group (CTG), Geffen Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse, The Old Globe, and Pasadena Playhouse came together to build relationships, explore shared histories, and identify how to collaborate across theatres on shared AREDI (anti-racism, equity, diversity, inclusion) and culture change efforts. For some, this was their first time meeting in person. For others, it was a notable reunion of colleagues with decades of history.

Something remarkable took place on the stage of the Kirk Douglas Theatre on Friday, October 14th, 2022: a group of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) theatre makers and administrators from Center Theatre Group (CTG), Geffen Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse, The Old Globe, and Pasadena Playhouse came together to build relationships, explore shared histories, and identify how to collaborate across theatres on shared AREDI (anti-racism, equity, diversity, inclusion) and culture change efforts. For some, this was their first time meeting in person. For others, it was a notable reunion of colleagues with decades of history.

This event was hosted as a first step in bringing the internal change efforts of the last three years into community practice by CTG’s BIPOC Steering Committee, a volunteer group of staff from all levels of the organization dedicated to strategizing culture change and harm-amelioration that was launched in 2021.

Facilitated by Leslie Ishii, Artistic Director of Perseverance Theatre in Alaska, previous CTG Teaching Artist, and leader in the L.A. theatrical landscape, the day launched with a land acknowledgment practice that celebrated the Indigenous communities that cultivated and cared for this land. It also called participants in to honor and build deeper relationships with these caretakers in all aspects of their theatrical work.

As we sat in the age-old tradition of a circle, we listened to each other’s responses to the prompt: what part of the theatre are we most passionate about? I was struck with a powerful sense that my mentor and former Associate Artistic Director for CTG, the late Diane Rodriguez, was present with us on one of her favorite stages. Her career was filled with significant highlights, including being appointed by Barack Obama to the National Council for the Arts, but none more important to her than creating opportunities for people of color in the professional theatre.

She would have loved this circle. She would have loved this day of community building and organizing. But hers was not the only energy shepherding this group through this work. Ishii eventually moved the group into a meditation reflecting on the seven generations that came before them in their family and what gifts have been passed down across time—and participants were able to share some of those inheritances. CTG’s Tessitura & Web Administration Director Janelle Cabrera Torres noted that, “Leslie Ishii is always an inspiration. With her guidance, there was a moment during our meditation session where I felt a genuine connection to my ancestors.”

After a supercharged boost from coffee partner Coffee Cart Boys, we moved into the juicy bit of the day—a brave and honest reflection from each theatre around what has been successful and challenging about their anti-racism & culture change work over the last two years. After having time to break out into small groups to probe deeper, each group reported the primary programs, policy changes, and long-term conversations their organization engaged in.

And, wow, was this an eye-opening moment for a lot of us! There were joyful moments of shared laughter and some harrowing moments where stories of harm resonated among participants. But it is in this same complexity that we were able to find some healing, a sense of deeper community, and an overwhelming amount of learning about each other and our theatres.

Late in the day, we arrived at the central question that had us gathering in the first place, “what might your organization be able to do if other theatres collaborated or partnered with you?” Honestly, there was no way we had enough time to answer this question fully. Yet, it was understood that this day was only one of many steps in becoming a more transparent and collaborative theatrical community.

Gathering with BIPOC theatre artists and BIPOC independent artists is the next priority for CTG’s BIPOC Steering Committee, but starting slowly and intentionally with theatres of similar sizes was an important first step. An essential learning of this conversation was a call to bring our affinity and accountability spaces across theatres together.

To close out, we shared a meal catered by A Beautiful Life Jamaican Kitchen, and, over a bounty of coconut rice, vegan curry, and jerk chicken, shared our top takeaways from the day. One that sticks with me the most was when an emerging leader and staff member acknowledged what it meant to see themselves represented in leadership through Krystin Matsumoto and Katie Chen, both of whom are members of the Production Department at CTG. Representation is one of many answers to our inequities in this field, but not the only one. Still, it is essential to remember the power that it holds to expand the imagination of those who have never been able to see themselves reflected in positions of influence in the theatre. 

CTG’s Associate Director of Institutional Grants, Paula Matallana, names the enthusiasm for continued gathering clearly, “The summit was such a special opportunity to build community, deepening bonds with other CTG staff and connecting with BIPOC theatre makers from other organizations. I appreciated the honesty and vulnerability that everyone brought into the space, and it was especially powerful to assemble in person after exclusively holding these types of conversations via Zoom over the last two years. I hope this becomes a regular event and look forward to continuing to gather in the future.”

We certainly didn’t end racism in the American Theatre with one gathering. Still, we took a big, bold, and authentic step together in building a safer and more equitable landscape in the L.A. theatrical community.

Alexandra Meda is the Artistic Director of Studio Luna (fka Teatro Luna) and the founder of Culture Change Labs, a culture change navigation firm of facilitators and mediators who have been working since July 2020 with CTG as AREDI consultants. Meda has specifically worked with the BIPOC Affinity space, BIPOC Steering Committee, and the Accountability Team in implementing the CTG Commitments to Change and the staff BIPOC Letter that followed those commitments. This Summit is the first of a three-part strategy for engaging specifically with BIPOC artists, theatre makers, and administrators externally in the change work that has been ongoing internally across the board at CTG.

Center Theatre Group’s BIPOC Summit is an initiative of the Bank of America ACTivate Awards, a Theatre Forward grants program which seeks to foster and accelerate theatres’ efforts to become more equitable, diverse, welcoming, and inclusive of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals and groups. As Center Theatre Group continues to advance our mission to serve the diverse audiences of Los Angeles, we are thankful to Bank of America and Theatre Forward for making this programming possible.

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